BANGKOK (Reuters) - Anti-government protesters in Bangkok blockaded one of Asia’s busiest airports for a fourth day on Saturday, with riot police ruling out an immediate assault to end the stand-off.
The protesters from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) are seeking to oust Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat in the latest escalation in a long-running political crisis.
A day after their police chief was sacked for mishandling the protests, commanders on the ground said they would not yet try to evict by force the thousands of protesters at the city’s Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang airports.
“Tonight, we are staying here,” Police Colonel Sutin Meekajit said in the hotel car park at the $4 billion Suvarnabhumi airport, gateway for nearly 15 million tourists last year.
In a televised address, Prime Minister Somchai said the PAD members barricaded at the airports were doing massive damage to the economy, but he would avoid violence to end the protests.
“Don’t worry. Officials will use gentle measures to deal with them,” Somchai said, inviting rights groups and journalists to monitor the imposition of emergency rule at the two airports.
Somchai took a tougher line with his police chief, demoting General Patcharawat Wongsuwan to an inactive post on Friday.
While dozens of riot police with truncheons and shields kept watch on protesters at Suvarnabhumi, police at Don Muang airport ordered demonstrators there to leave immediately.
But they softened the edict by saying they hoped the situation would return to normal within three days.
The PAD refuses to end the airport sit-ins, which have forced hundreds of flights to be canceled, stranded thousands of foreign tourists and grounded millions of dollars of air cargo.
“We will not enter in any talks with the police. We will fight until the end,” PAD spokesman Parnthep Pourpongpan said.
The PAD say they are ready for a prolonged siege, their “security guards” armed with clubs, sticks and golf clubs, and dug in behind a series of barricades of fire trucks, razor wire, car tires and luggage trolleys.
Thailand’s three-year-old political crisis has deepened dramatically since the unelected PAD began a “final battle” on Monday to unseat Somchai, whom they accuse of being a pawn of former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, his brother-in-law.
Pressure is building on the army to oust the prime minister, as they did Thaksin in 2006, after Somchai rejected military calls to quit this week.
But army chief Anupong Paochinda has said he would not take over, arguing the military cannot heal fundamental political rifts between the Bangkok elite and middle classes who despise Thaksin, and the poor rural and urban majority who love him.
Exporters were scrambling to get perishable goods and key components to customers around the world.
The question of compensation may arise later, but for now, they are focused on shipping goods, said Kasem Jariyawong, president of the Thai Air Freight Forwarders Association.
“We haven’t had time to think about suing anybody, being occupied with how to cope with the immediate problem. What we and the shippers don’t know is how long the siege will drag on.”
A prolonged closure of Suvarnabhumi, which can handle 3 million tons of cargo a year, would do serious damage to an export-driven economy already struggling to cope with a global slowdown, experts say.
Repairing Thailand’s tarnished image as a safe place to do business and travel may also take time.
The government began shuttling thousands of stranded tourists by bus to U-Tapao, a Vietnam War-era naval airbase 150 km (90 miles) east of Bangkok, as an alternative landing site for airlines, but travelers reported delays and confusion.
The U.S. embassy in Bangkok said it had asked the Thai foreign ministry to provide “appropriate compensation” to U.S. citizens stranded by the airport closures.
Writing by Darren Schuettler; Editing by Keith Weir